8 Lessons On Success From Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton

I haven’t read any of his books. But after I saw Alain de Botton’s TED talk, I made plans to read them all.

[UPDATE: I just started reading Status Anxiety.]

We all want to be successful. We want to be happy and have a good life. But what does that look like? How do we get there?

I admit it. I get confused about what success means to me. It seems to change day to day.

Because my definition of success is affected by my parents’ definitions, and their parents’ definitions, and society’s definitions.

If I learned one thing from Alain de Botton, it is: your success is entirely up to you.

I don’t mean you will be a success. I mean you can decide for yourself what success means.

There is so much insight packed into this talk. What else did I learn?

Don’t Define Your Success Using Other People’s Definitions

My dad started several businesses. I guess you could call him a “serial entrepreneur.” (Although I hate that term.)

In fact, his mother did the same. His grandfather ran a business for 60 years.

Many times I’ve fixated on starting my own business.

Why? Because “it’s in my genes?” Or because I’ve inherited their definition of success?

Is starting a business really what I want to do with my life?

(No, really. I’m asking. Please tell me!)

The Wrong Definition of Success Makes You Envious

If you have your own definition of success, you can focus on moving toward it and ignore everything else.

If you operate on someone else’s definition, you’ll never make progress. Because the things you need to do and the things you want to do won’t line up.

And when you don’t make progress, you will look to people are are successful. People who are the kind of successful you think you want to be.

You will envy them. Which means, you will wish you were them. And that’s no way to go through life.

The problem with envy is: those you envy succeed because they know what they want. You don’t. So your comparison is apples to oranges.

Compare = Despair.

This is the hardest thing about trying to “make it” in the world. Everyone makes it in different ways. Everyone’s map is unique.

It’s so tempting to adopt someone else’s definition of success. It gives the illusion of a road to follow. But at the end of that road, there is only heartbreak.

We Envy Those Who Are Most Like Us

You don’t need to worry about envying Dennis Rodman or the Queen of England. They’re too weird. You can’t relate to them.

But if you wind up at a high school or college reunion, you’d better look out.

Here are people your age, who even went to the same school as you, and look how awesome they’re doing.

These are breeding grounds for envy.

The fallacy here is that you’re only looking at the similarities. Not the differences.

As a novice software engineer, I envied fellow engineers who were the same age as me, but more skilled.

But guess what they all had in common? Their parents were software engineers.

I thought I was inferior. But I wasn’t. They merely had a head start.

Envy is a waste of energy. Follow your own definition of success and ignore what the others are doing.

We Can’t Be Anything We Want

Orwell comes to mind. “We’re all equal. But some are more equal than others.”

I never had any chance of playing in the NBA. Did you?

Look. It’s great to strive for an equal society, and it’s great that most people have the opportunity to better their station in life.

For most of history, this was never the case.

But sometimes the vicissitudes of life strike us down. This is randomness: bad fortune.

I could obsess about the “blows” life has dealt me. Like not being 6’9″.

Another waste of energy.

The problem with our so-called equal society is that it makes everything feel attainable.

And what happens when something that seems attainable slips beyond your grasp?

You feel you should have been able to achieve it. You feel unworthy. Your self-esteem sinks.

The only solution? Be OK with what you can’t accomplish in your life. And with what you don’t want to.

Tragedy Breeds Sympathy, Tabloids Breed Scorn

Remember reading the great tragedies in school? Hamlet. Othello. Oedipus Rex.

These stories where terrible things befall the protagonist are not about tearing down the once-mighty man and dancing on his ashes.

Instead, they teach us to recognize that some people lead tragic lives. Usually through no fault of their own.

The reason we speak of Fortune is that we are all subject to it, for good or ill. Those who bear the blunt end of Fortune’s stick deserve our sympathy, not our scorn.

We used to call poor people “unfortunates.” They’d “fallen” on hard times.

Today we assume they didn’t work hard enough. Or they are sponging off the largesse of society.

Our pop culture is all about tearing people down.

Why do you think we rush to build new celebrities up? It’s so they have farther to fall. After we push them off the pedestal.

Lindsay Lohan. Britney Spears. Amy Winehouse. And so on.

Just wait, Taylor Swift. We’ll get dirt on you soon enough.

Look at Brian Williams. The hippest newsman in America. A lifetime of public goodwill. Evaporated. Overnight.

Most of life, we can’t control. If this is how we treat others who stumble, how will we treat ourselves, when fate comes knocking?

If The Cream Must Rise, The Chaff Must Fall

The world’s democratic societies strive to be meritocracies. The American Dream is built on this idea.

Even if you’re born into poverty, if you work hard enough, you can rise to the top. Maybe.

What we don’t talk about is how a meritocracy is antithetical to the idea that everyone is equal. That we can all be anything we want.

Not everyone can be at the top. If there’s a top, there must be a middle. And a bottom.

A meritocracy implies the existence of a bell curve. And at the left end of that curve are those without merit.

Not only are they on the bottom. They deserve to be there.

Yet here we are anyway, telling everyone they can be on top. Even though most people will never get close.

Does that make you uncomfortable?

It’s No Easier To Reach The Top Today Than It Ever Was

Is it easier to become a member of Congress today than it was to become a French nobleman in the 17th century?

Probably not. It only appears that way.

Nobody was telling French peasants they could “be anything.” There weren’t dozens of books written by noblemen about how to become like them.

Check the business and self-development aisles in the bookstore, and you’ll see how much things have changed.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the top is still the top, and it’s as hard to get there as ever.

You have to work hard and get all the right breaks, and that still might not be enough.

Yet today there is an expectation that if you want to reach the top badly enough, you can get there.

Not only is this false. It deceives us into living by the same definition of success that the people at the top are using.

Not our own.

You Are Not Your Career

As Steve Pressfield says, the professional holds herself at one remove from her craft. While the amateur over-identifies with his.

Why do so many former athletes end up bankrupt?

They have over-identified with their careers. They are baseball players and track stars. When age takes that away, they have nothing left. They are empty inside.

Or consider injury. Injuries are nearly always flukes of Fortune. Many great athletes have been forced to give up their career, for reasons entirely unrelated to their merit.

When you are your career, then if you fail, or your career ends, you feel like you have failed at being yourself.

But nobody can fail at being themselves.

Woe unto the writer who cannot feel complete unless he reaches #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Not only is that an iffy definition of success, it’s out of his control.

Never stake your self-worth on something out of your control.

We all want to be a success. But what kind? Ours, or somebody else’s.

What’s your definition?